I love to sit and watch old commercials from the 1990s.
Being born in 1985, I came of age in a time when the colors were bright, the music was bangin', the parents were uncool, and everything was EXXXXTREME. It was awesome.
We didn't have apps or deep, consuming handheld games connected to the internet. We had stuff, like action figures, Nerf guns, and playsets.
As much as I love my life now, I sometimes long for the simplicity of a life without responsibilities – the life I had in the 1990s. I guess that's why the nostalgia settings in my brain are so doggone high.
Back in the Wild West days of blogging – around 2008 – I thought I would spend some of my time revisiting the glory days of the '90s. I struck up a Wordpress site called Vintage '90s.
I committed to the site for about a year, but my impatience combined with my youthful inexperience led me to focus on other things, like writing for clients and paying bills – those stupid grown-up things that I didn't care for.
I quit and moved onto something else, figuring there wasn't a sustainable audience for a guy to write about The Rachel haircut and review old episodes of Twin Peaks and Blow-Pop commercials.
Fast-forward to today, and one of my favorite websites to spend time on is Dinosaur Dracula. Matt, the writer of the site, spends his days reviewing old VHS box covers, classic commercials, and random action figures he buys at flea markets.
Honestly? It sounds like a dream. He's got the business I wish I had stuck around to build.
I don't have any numbers on how much Matt makes from his blog, or whether or not he supplements it with other work. But, he has a long-running podcast, more than 10,000 YouTube subscribers, and more than 25,000 fans on Facebook.
Literally thousands of people enjoy what Matt is doing – and what I would be doing, if I had stuck with it.
When "write to market" can be good advice
I spend a lot of time in writers' circles online, and when aspiring authors seek advice that will send their careers into the stratosphere, the "experienced" authors often say, "Write to market."
Here's what that advice actually means: if you want to publish a book, say, in the sci-fi genre, then you need to know what the tropes are. Read books in the genre. See how they are structured. You don't want to surprise your readers. If they expect one thing from sci-fi, then give that to them.
It's good advice, in some cases. If you:
- Want to build an audience and make money as fast as possible
- Are already a fan of that particular genre's tropes
- Can write all day in that genre
then this may be the route for you.
However, I would argue that it's not a "one-size-fits-all" piece of advice.
Ignoring the rules – and starting a career
When I set out to start writing a police procedural series, Charlie Hardwick, I was really intrigued by the story. Set as an homage to a short-lived police procedural TV show, my series would explore how a homicide detective would solve murders while also trying to unravel a conspiracy that jailed him for murder for more than a decade.
It was a fun idea, and one that I could see going in a lot of different directions. Problem is: I don't really read much fiction.
It's not that all fiction is bad. I just have different preferences. I don't have the patience to read chapters that are several thousand words long, but ultimately don't do anything for the story. I hate paragraph upon paragraph of description of a person. I'd rather use my imagination to fill those holes myself.
Most popular fiction is loaded with long chapters and, to me, boring description. And police procedural books (and murder mysteries in general) that are self-published these days seem to follow the same template: lots of cursing, plenty of sex, and very descriptive scenes of gore. The main character is usually a cop that operates in a gray area of some kind.
Rather than force myself to go down that route, I tested the waters with a 10,000-word novella of my own. I didn't write it for the market. Instead, I wrote the book as something I would like to read. It was clean, focused on the main character's struggle with his partner and with his past, and adjusting to new life as a detective. He was a good cop going after bad guys. There was no sex in it, since I didn't really have a reason to put any in. And while I provided descriptions to paint a clear picture of crime scenes, I didn't get too far into the weeds of blood splatters and guts hanging out.
Once it was done, I put it on Amazon for free, just to see what it would do. To my shock, thousands of people started downloading the book overnight. I wasn't making a dime, but it confirmed my belief that there were other readers out there like me who wanted fast-paced stories with clear characters that moved things along.
For the very first time in my life, I saw myself being a published author for a living.
"Write to market" almost killed me
I took up ghostwriting for about a year and a half to pay bills. I thought it would be fantastic: I'd get to focus on fiction writing full time. I would grow as a writer, learn to be a stronger author, and it would only help my own books.
To a degree, that was true. But it also was one of the hardest periods of my life.
While I am very interested in real-world stories, my ghostwriting gigs were about vampires, trolls, and dystopian cowboys after the apocalypse. I had to write about guys going back in time and having graphic sex with blue fairies.
And time after time, my clients would chastise me for moving plots along too quickly.
I spent hours every day pumping my creative energy into filling tropes that I really, really wasn't interested in. It sapped my energy trying to come up with different ways to incorporate curse words naturally or write a sex scene every third chapter (an actual direction I was given for the story about the time-traveling guy).
"It's what the readers are looking for!" I was assured.
If there are writers out there who can do this long-term, good for you. Really. I don't judge anybody who follows that. But for me, trying to keep track of tropes and make sure that every box was checked was exhausting. It only killed my productivity for my own stories.
Writing is hard enough on its own – write for yourself instead
In those writer's groups I am a part of, there is definitely a segment of writers out there who are writing to market successfully. But they like what they're writing.
I would argue that they're not writing to market – they're writing for themselves. And that's a good thing.
Plenty of authors break the rules and are huge successes. Why? Because when you like what you're writing, it shines through in the work. If you enjoy it, that fun permeates your words, and the audience responds to it.
Writing is hard enough. Why make it harder on yourself by trying to be someone you're not?
Successful writers are, by and large, those who enjoy writing and are prolific at it. If you want the creative energy to be prolific, you better enjoy the work.
Plus, when you write for yourself, you don't just tick boxes. Rather, you know why you like what you like. That gives you a deeper connection with it.
The reviews for some of my ghostwritten books were atrocious. Of course they were. I had no clue why this book about a time-traveling janitor needed to be loaded with so much sex. And since I had zero connection to the story, that came through in the final piece.
But the reviews for my Hardwick series? They're much more positive because I am delivering something that I know I like – and I'm not unique. There are other readers like me out there.
The rule for a happy life is the rule for a happy writer
So many pieces of advice in life boil down to: Be yourself. Know who you are, be true to who you are, and be proud of who you are.
I say, be yourself as a writer, too. The second you pretend to be someone else, your writing will suffer.
Instead, focus on making yourself happy with every word you put on the page. There's a group out there who will like it, too. You may need more time than other authors to find those writers and get your book in their hands – but when you do, you'll have fans for life.
And you'll be a much happier, more productive writer.